Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A Funny Thing Happened on my Way to see Buddha ... a Good Friday pilgrimage to Mt Hieizan and Enryakuji Temple

I had always wanted to visit Enryakuji, a World Heritage site, and one of the most famous Buddhist temples in Japan.  The temple complex is located on Mount Hieizan and because of this the mountain is also known as a "holy" mountain. A Japanese friend who knows of my particular affinity for Koyasan (see earlier post) encouraged me to visit Hieizan so that I could "compare" both "holy" sites.

On this latest trip to Kyoto, we found ourselves on Good Friday setting out for Mount Hieizan.
I had detailed instructions from guidebooks, websites and from my Japanese friend so I was quite sure I knew how to get us there.
But ... Buddha has such a sense of humour.  On my first trip to Kyoto, we got lost along the way to Kinkakuji Temple.  This last trip, a few weeks ago -- Buddha struck again.  This time, he got us on the wrong train. We were supposed to take the Kosei train line from Kyoto Station ...

Hieizan-Sakamoto, our designated station was just four stops away from Kyoto station.

We left in such high spirits -- but Buddha knew better.  Apparently, we didn't check the train details when it pulled in -- we just naturally got on and grabbed our seats.  We got on the wrong train -- who knew that both Kosei and Biwako lines left from the same platform?

It took over thirty minutes and quite a number of stations away before we realised our mistake and we had to backtrack, get off the Biwako line and get on the Kosei line.   Here is Jay facing the right direction this time.  He does look a bit peeved.

As for me, I was just happy to be back on the right track.  At least we still had the whole day ahead of us.  

A few stops later, we found ourselves at the right station -- Hieizan Sakamoto.  There are different ways to get to Mount Hieizan --  and everyone had said that this was the easier and faster way  (unless Buddha decides to play games with you) .  
From the train station, we wanted to walk through the town to get to the cable car for Enryakuji but the lady at the station said it would be quite a distance and suggested we use the shuttle bus instead.  As you can see from the photo above, it was a slow day and we were the only two people on the bus.

I'm glad we did take the bus because the road to the cable car station was all uphill. Here's the bus waiting for any passengers to take back to the train station. 

The Sakamoto Cable car has been in operation since 1927 and is the longest cable car route in Japan. It's a funicular cable car that follows the steep incline of the slope.  The ride to the top of the mountain takes a little over 11 minutes and would take us through interesting views.  Since there was only one cable car going up, I was pretty sure we were getting on the right train.

The cable car leaves every half hour.  While we waited to board, we took the time to look around the interesting details on exhibit at the station.

The cable car interiors were spanking clean and very spic and span.  There were very few of us on board so I could move from seat to seat to get the better views.

Aside from its "holy" mountain status, Mount Hieizan is also well known for its rather violent past.  The "Siege of Mount Hiei" in the 1500s by Oda Nobunaga caused the massacre of thousands of "warrior monks".  There are certain places in the the mountain that have small statues that honour the lives lost during the particularly bloody time.  

The cable car glides smoothly through the mountain slope.  

At some point, the tracks split in two and there is a short wait of about three minutes as we wait for the car coming down Hieizan to pass us, before we continue on our way.

Along the way up ,  we saw statues carved out of tree logs of animals like wild boar, snake, eagle,  deer and this monkey -- they  are all  guardians of the mountain and Enryakuji.

Soon enough, the cable car reaches its final stop. 

The view outside the station is not as clear as I would have wanted it.  A slight haze obstructs our view of the towns below, including Lake Biwa, largest lake in Japan.  Trust me, it's somewhere beneath that haze.

From the cable car station, it's another kilometre or so to the entrance to the temple grounds -- most of it still uphill.

So we huff and puff our way up.  Thankfully, it's a cool spring day and ideal for hiking.

We loved the clean, pine scented air of Mount Hieizan.

Thank goodness for the benches placed along the path.  Walking up a mountain, even along a well paved road is hard work.

Once inside the temple grounds, first order of the day is to symbolically wash our hands and purify our mouths before entering the temple.

Enryakuji is composed of three major areas -- the east area called Todo,  the west area called Saito and the farthest area called Yokawa
There are buses that travel between the three areas but the times are  infrequent at best so for today, we decided to confine ourselves to the Todo area, where most of the main buildings are.
This building above is the Konpon Chudo, the Main Hall and a National Treasure of Japan.  It's a gorgeous building and like the Okunoin in Koya san, there is a lamp on the main altar with a fire that's been burning for centuries.  Unfortunately, no photos inside the Konpon Chudo are allowed.

There are different stone monuments that are right outside Konpon Chudo - along with a late blooming weeping sakura.

Right across Konpon Chudo are stone steps that lead up to Monjuro. Steep as they are, we make the climb.  Towards the top, there is someone busy with pencil and paper, capturing the image of Konpon Chudo on his sketchbook. 

Monjuro, while not one of the four notable buildings of Enryakuji, is a beauty nonetheless.  I initially thought it was a torii but upon closer inspection, it's not.  It was well worth the climb up the steep stone steps.  However, a few meters away from the building was another way we could have gone up, a less steep and shorter staircase.  Hmm,  Buddha was up to his tricks again.

Along the sides of the Monjuro are these petition and prayer boards.  I don't know how long these have been here but they have a certain patina that blends well with the weathered wood.

From Monjuro, we saw there were more steps to climb to get to our next destination.  
Buddha was certainly making me sweat on this visit to Enryakuji!

This is the Daikodo, a designated important cultural asset.  The Daikodo is the dojo or training hall of Enryakuji, one where monks received their academic training.

Around the bend from Daikodo is another lovely building, the Kaidan In where Buddhist priests were ordained into the Tendai Sect.  This is another of Enryakuji's important cultural assets. 
I love its solemn, elegant grace.

Aside from the Konpon Chudo, which is a National Treasure, there are three cultural assets in Enryakuji, all within the Todo area.  To get to the last one, I see that there are more stone steps to climb.

This is the Amida-do,  burned down during the siege of Mount Hieizan by Nobunaga, it was fully restored four hundred years later, in 1987.  It is a striking vermillion sight amidst the dark green cedar forest in the background.  The Amida-do was used for memorial services for the dead and continues to hold these services until today.

On the walk back to the bus stop to catch the bus to Kyoto, we pass by these posters that tell the story of Mount Hieizan and Enryakuji.  While everything is in Japanese, you can get the drift from the pictures.  Apparently this one chronicles the battle between Nobunaga and the warrior monks of Mount Hieizan.

The posters mark historical dates of Enryakuji's establishment.

It's interesting to see the history of the temple through these posters conveniently placed along the path.

The temple was established in 831 by Dengyo Daishi Saicho -- Koyasan was also established around the same time by Kobo Daishi.

It's mid afternoon when we decide to return to Kyoto -- this time via bus.  The cable car and the train would have been faster but somehow, we couldn't muster the energy to trudge back to the cable car station.  
Despite the missteps and many steps we've had to walk and climb, we gave thanks to Buddha for this gift of a visit to Mount Hieizan and Enryakuji.  
It was certainly not my usual way to spend Good Friday but it was a spiritually uplifting experience nonetheless!

Friday, April 25, 2014

Starting on my Shuin-cho ... memories of Japan through a temple seal book

On this last visit to Kyoto, I discovered the perfect travel souvenir ... the shuin-cho.

The shuin-cho is a temple seal book.  Sold in most temples and shrines, it is where you can have the temple seal stamped and calligraphy written on -- a wonderful way to document and remember your visit.

It was certainly significant that I discovered the shuin-cho at Ninna-ji Temple where I saw an extravagant display of late blooming omuro sakura.  This was my favourite shot of the day -- 
Ninna-ji's five storied pagoda framed amidst the sakura.

Among the many types of shuin-cho sold at Ninna-ji, I chose the one with the same lovely image of the pagoda amidst the sakura. 

 Each temple has a specific set of seals which the monk or the temple employee stamps on the shuin-cho.  This is usually in red.  Then, calligraphy is handwritten over the stamps.  What is written?  Normally the name of the temple and the date of your visit.  The seal and calligraphy costs three hundred yen -- a very reasonable sum in exchange for such a noteworthy souvenir.  

And here is the very first stamp in my shuin-cho, from Ninna-ji Temple.  A thin piece of paper with more calligraphy is enclosed which gives additional information on the temple -- and perhaps also serves as a blotter for the fresh ink.

Aside from the sakura garden, the  pagoda and Main Hall of Ninna-ji, another main attraction within the grounds is the Goten, the former residence of the Head Priest of the temple.  Because of the temple's prominence, the Head Priest was usually a member of the royal family and so the residence and gardens are very expansive and impressive.

Here is a view of the pagoda from the gardens of the Goten.  There is nothing quite so beautiful as these traditional Japanese gardens.

 Because the Goten used to be the Head Priest's residence, there was a small alcove where a monk sat putting the seal and writing the calligraphy on various shuin-cho books.  I was able to get my second seal and stamp from the Goten at Ninna-ji.

The day after visiting Ninna-ji, we went up Mount Hieizan to visit Enryakuji, one of the most important temples in Japan and the headquarters of the Tendai sect of Buddhism.  Like Koyasan, the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism (see earlier post), Enryakuji is much revered and thus a must-go pilgrimage stop for many devotees.

The main hall called Konponchudo was one of the first places we visited in Enryakuji.  The entire temple complex is a World Heritage Site and Konponchudo is a designated national treasure of Japan.

Before entering Konponchudo (where sadly, no photos were permitted), I left my shuin-cho with the friendly and smiling monk at the entrance.

Here is Konponchudo's seal and calligraphy.  The usual procedure is that before you enter the temple to pay your respects, leave your shuin-cho with the monks and pick it up after your visit.

From Konponchudo, I paid a visit and burned incense at Shusse Daikokutendo, a small temple just a few hundred meters away.

As the sign says, the god enshrined in this temple is also tasked with protecting and blessing the people of Mount Hieizan with peace and prosperity.

A very gracious monk stamped my shuin cho and did the calligraphy after my visit to Shusse Daikokutendo.  

The Daiko-do or Great Lecture Hall, where monks received their academic training,  is one of Enryakuji's notable buildings.  With its pennants and banners and bright vermillion paint, it was such a colourful and vivid sight.

The Daiko-do is also the last place in Enryakuji where I got my shuin-cho stamped and written on.  My fifth page done in just two days!  

I thought my temple seal days were over and done for this trip as we spend most of our last day in Kyoto at the Teramachi shopping arcade.  I completely forgot that there are eight temples and shrines, albeit small ones, tucked between stores, within this shopping street.  While many of them had signs that said no temple seals were given out, Takoyakushido Temple had a Buddhist nun who was sitting there filling out several shuin cho books.  I quickly added mine to the pile.

 A temple of Pureland Buddhism, Takoyakushido even has a nice little back story about a miracle healing connected to the Buddha enshrined inside.

And this is the sixth seal in my shuin-cho, from the Takoyakushido Temple in Teramachi.  It was also the first one done by a nun and not a monk.  Note that the small slip of paper that came with the seal has a web address -- temples have come into the digital age! 

I am really really happy that I discovered the shuin-cho -- as you can see, I have quite a number of pages to fill up.  Perhaps I can go back to some of my favourite temples just to acquire their stamps.
I wish I had started this sooner as it is such a delightful way to remember my travels.
So here's to a few more shuin-cho books to fill with more memories of Japan.